Important dates to circle on the 2021 Saints offseason calendar

by David



The NFL’s 2021 offseason is going to look just as chaotic and uncertain as the spring and summer 2020 — and that extends to the New Orleans Saints. There won’t be an NFL Scouting Combine for Sean Payton to fumble his binoculars at or an after-hours steakhouse for Mickey Loomis to meet with players’ agents at. But there’s still going to be a ton of work to do for all involved, and a number of deadlines and start dates to jot down in your day planner. Here’s what you need to know about the Saints offseason: Feb. 23: Franchise tag window opens It’s possible the Saints use the franchise tag for the first time in quite a while, with valuable free agents like Marcus Williams and Trey Hendrickson up for new contracts. If the 2021 salary cap is set at $180.5 million, the franchise tag for safeties will be valued at about $10.4 million, whereas defensive ends will be due north of $14.5 million. New Orleans could also use the slightly less-valuable transition tag, which allows other teams to negotiate a deal (establishing the market price), but doesn’t offer any compensation should the Saints not match the offer. They’ll have until March 9 to issue either tag. March 10: First college pro day begins There will be no NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this year due to the pandemic, and relatively few colleges are going to be able to host pro days for their draft prospects. Even fewer team scouts will be allowed to hit the road to attend, and private meetings with teams will be heavily restricted. But the first pro day will be held at Arkansas with dozens (of the bigger, better-funded) of schools following their lead in the spring. Here’s the current schedule, listed chronologically: Arkansas: March 10 Oklahoma: March 12 Georgia Tech: March 16 Pittsburgh: March 17 Auburn: March 18 Buffalo: March 18 Georgia Tech: March 18 Louisiana Tech: March 18 Memphis: March 19 TCU: March 19 Florida State: March 22 Central Michigan: March 23 Michigan State: March 24 South Carolina: March 24 Mississippi: March 25 Western Michigan: March 25 Boston College: March 26 BYU: March 26 Michigan: March 26 Virginia Tech: March 26 Louisiana-Lafayette: March 29 Miami: March 29 Miami (Ohio): March 29 North Carolina: March 29 Louisville: March 30 Washington: March 30 Boise State: March 31 Notre Dame: March 31 Florida: March 31 North Carolina: April 1 Nebraska: April 6 March 15: Legal tampering window opens This is when free agents and interested teams can begin negotiating contracts. It’s when the majority of big-money deals are hammered out, as teams with cap space to burn look to get a jump on their less-aggressive rivals. Don’t expect many blockbuster moves from New Orleans given their cap situation. However, any agreements are committed verbally, not in ink. No contracts can be signed until the start of the league year on March. But big shakeups are still possible in this window; the Saints signed Malcolm Jenkins here last offseason, and added Latavius Murray while Mark Ingram’s agent waffled during the 2019 period. March 17: Free agency opens up, teams must be cap-compliant This is where the doors get kicked down. Contracts will be signed and faxed to the NFL office in New York for approval, and every team must get beneath the salary cap by 4 p.m. ET. For the Saints, this is their eleventh hour to finish tweaking the roster and cutting their cap casualties, but if they work as they have before they shouldn’t take anything down to the wire. It’ll be interesting to see if they add any new faces right out of the gate. But we should see some big departures with starters like Williams, Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, Jared Cook, and Alex Anzalone all poised to hit the open market. Could Jameis Winston get a better offer somewhere else? April 29: First round of the 2021 NFL draft Draft day is rarely predictable for New Orleans, and it should be even more enigmatic after Drew Brees has retired (as is expected). Depending on how free agency shakes out, they could very well go into the draft with just two quarterbacks under contract: Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian. Maybe they end up finally drafting a rookie early on. For now, the Saints are scheduled to pick at No. 28 overall, but don’t rule out an aggressive trade up the board. In past years, they’ve made their first-round selection at No. 24 (in 2020), No. 14 (in 2018), Nos. 11 and 32 (in 2017), and at No. 12 (in 2016). They also controlled the Nos. 13 and 31 picks back in 2015. April 30: Second and third rounds of the 2021 draft This is the meat and potatoes part of the draft for New Orleans. Just look at the talent they’ve added in recent years, like Michael Thomas and Vonn Bell (in 2016), Marcus Williams and Alvin Kamara with Trey Hendrickson (in 2017), Tre’Quan Smith (in 2018), and Erik McCoy (in 2019). The jury is still out on 2020 pick Zack Baun, but the Saints have had great success here. But how many picks will they have? They’ve already traded their initial third rounder (to help acquire Baun), but they’re slated to pick in the second round at No. 60 overall and should receive a pair of compensatory picks in the third round for losing Teddy Bridgewater and Terry Fontenot. We’ll see if those selections convey as expected. May 1: Final rounds of the 2021 draft, and undrafted free agency This should be a quiet Saturday for the Saints — until it isn’t. They only have one pick here, a fourth rounder, after trading away most of their selections or losing them for COVID-19 violations. The real action will begin after the draft is over when New Orleans can start making calls to rookies who fell through the cracks and are free to sign with any team. They’ve put together a very solid group in past years out of undrafted players. Returns specialists like Deonte Harris and special teams aces J.T. Gray and Justin Hardee, wide receivers Marquez Callaway, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Juwan Johnson, and defensive linemen such as Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach, and Carl Granderson have all gotten their start as undrafted rookies. What comes next? Well, we aren’t sure. Rookie minicamps typically kick off after the draft in May, but the COVID-19 pandemic’s prolonged impact suggests a big chunk of the offseason will again be virtual. Teams may not be able to gather again until training camp in late July or early August. The NFL is going to have to move with a lot of caution and uncertainty as vaccination efforts around the country proceed to bring infection rates under control. So stay tuned for news on, well, everything as the league reaches decisions on the 2021 schedule, preseason, training camp dates, and summer practice sessions. Until this public health crisis is stamped out, things won’t look like what we’re used to.